What Would a “Good Christian Woman” Do? by Liz Cooledge Jenkins

Early morning lap swim at the local pool is generally a peaceful space for me. It’s usually pretty uneventful. I try to go three times a week; I don’t always feel like going, but I always feel better after I do. The other day, though, something happened that upset my equilibrium and got me thinking.

When I showed up at the pool, ready to mind my own business and get a good workout in, I was happy to see three empty lanes. I don’t mind splitting a lane when needed, but it is a nice little luxury to have a lane all to myself. I chose one of the empty lanes, and in the next few minutes, two other swimmers arrived and filled in the other two. I did a long, leisurely warm-up and then stopped at the wall to find that another swimmer had joined me in my lane.

As he swam back and forth on the right side of the lane and I did the same on the left, I realized that he was taking up more than his fair share of the lane. I felt a little annoyed and disrespected. But it didn’t seem like a big deal. I started on my next set.

 I was swimming butterfly across the pool one way, and he was doing freestyle the other way. In the middle of the pool, as we crossed paths, the forward motion of his freestyle stroke happened at just the wrong time—and in the wrong place. He hit me, hard, on the head. Shocked, I stopped swimming and looked back at him. He did not stop. I finished the length I was swimming and did another one, then paused to get my bearings. Accidental contact happens in the pool all the time; I’ve gotten whacked by other people plenty of times, and I know I’ve done my share of whacking, too. But usually it doesn’t happen to the head, and it’s never been that forceful. I was physically okay. But I felt shaken up. I started looking around to see if there was another lane I could move to so that this wouldn’t happen again.

As I was looking around, my lanemate also stopped at the wall. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to hit you.”

“It’s okay,” I said, “but it was hard!”

“Huh?”

I wasn’t sure if he didn’t hear me, or if he just didn’t expect me to do anything other than smile and say “no worries.” I repeated myself and clarified: “I know you didn’t mean to, but it did hurt.”

“Oh…well, sorry.”

“It’s okay, but I’m going to move lanes.”

I got out, grabbed my things, and chose another lane to share with a female swimmer.

Through the rest of my workout, I kept thinking about what happened. I wondered if I had hurt this man’s feelings or caused him discomfort. I wondered if he thought I was overreacting. I worried about what words he might use to describe me. “Bitchy” came to mind, unbidden.

I had to keep reminding myself that he was the one who hit me. Hard. On the head. It was surely unintentional, but that did not make it okay. Why was I worrying about whether I had made him uncomfortable, or about what he might think of me?

I felt pleased that I stood up for myself, but I also felt vaguely guilty, even though I knew I had nothing to feel guilty about. I had not been unkind. I set a totally reasonable boundary. I chose to value my brain cells, my wellbeing. I knew in my mind that all of this was good and healthy. But something in me still felt the temptation to prioritize his feeling of comfort over my own physical safety.

I know that, to some extent, this is how we’re socialized as women. I also connect it specifically to my years in evangelical church contexts. Something in me worried that my response was not a very “Christian” one. What would a “good Christian” do? What would a “good Christian woman” do? There’s a version of an ideal religious woman who really would pretend everything was okay, smile, make sure the man who accidentally hit her in the head didn’t feel too bad about it, and go on sharing a lane with him. When put like that, it seems ridiculous. It seems obviously unhealthy. But that’s still the subconscious ideal that is stuck somewhere inside me. And I want it out.

I want to make choices for my own wellbeing and be pleased with these choices. I want to set appropriate boundaries and feel good about myself for doing so. For me, as a Christian woman, part of the process of unlearning unhealthy habits of self-effacement and relearning healthy commitments to my own wellbeing means unlearning some theologies and relearning others. It means learning to see myself as an image-bearer of God, full of dignity and worthy of being treated that way. I am not created to be subservient to men; I am created to exist in community alongside people of all genders as equals, valuing one another’s needs equally.

Really, the pious, demure, smiling, falsely comforting model of a Christian woman that pops into my head at unexpected times, as it did in the pool that morning, has nothing to do with the religion of Jesus.[1] I believe in a Jesus who saw and honored women’s power. When I read about Bible women like Ruth and Esther and Deborah and Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus, I see them claiming this power. I don’t see them feeling guilty about asserting their needs and taking steps toward their own wellbeing. I see them embracing their agency, taking initiative, leading and loving courageously and knowing that God is with them as they do so.

The religion of these women is the religion I want to claim as my own. No guilt involved. No apologies necessary. The awkwardness of moving to a different lap swim lane is a small price to pay to begin to internalize these truths.


[1] I’m borrowing this phrase from theologian Howard Thurman. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman differentiates the “religion about Jesus” from the “religion of Jesus”—the Christian religion that has made Jesus into an oppressive figure vs. the religion Jesus himself embodied, which is one of nonviolent, justice-centered peacemaking.

BIO: Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She regularly shares justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com. When not writing or reading, you can find her swimming, hiking, attempting to grow vegetables, and/or drinking a lot of tea. You can also find her on FB (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj).



Categories: Feminism, General, Herstory, Power relations, Women's Voices

Tags: , ,

8 replies

  1. A great essay and reminder of the need for women to rethink the way we’ve been socialized, especially when it comes to religious beliefs about how women should be behave. You did exactly the right thing. His response should have been “Thank you for letting me know. I’ll be more careful in the future.” Hopefully you’re telling him why you were changing lanes will make him re-evaluate his behavior. What if the other person had been someone who could have been really physically harmed by being whacked in the head? I see the same dynamic all the time everywhere and it is a constant message to women and girls that we don’t deserve to take up the same space, that the world was not made for us and we are less welcome in it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ” What would a “good Christian woman” do? ”
    If being a “good Christian woman” means allowing myself to be physically abused by a man, I’m glad I’m not Christian.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Vala. I think my hope was to differentiate between a false model of a “good Christian woman” and what I actually think is good – as a woman who still identifies as Christian but who takes that to mean “I’m made in God’s image with dignity and am worthy of love” as opposed to do “I should allow myself to be abused.”

      I think a lot of religions have some ugly factions/elements within them, and some good, redemptive aspects/elements too…and for me, within my faith, I’m looking to remove myself from the ugly and find the good. Thanks again and peace to you on your journey.

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  3. All of this sounds so familiar! Thanks, Liz, for another relevant and timely piece. So many of these situations and subservient responses have been deeply engrained in us since we were children and when tied to being a “good” Christian, that puts another layer on any idea of rejection of what we’ve been taught and what was modeled for us. It’s refreshing to hear another perspective.

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  4. As a historian who has worked a lot in Methodist women’s history, I see you responding not to a vague expectation, but rather to the explicit and intentional Cult of True Womanhood teaching put forth primarily by male pastors and male editors of women’s magazines. The original research on this was Barbara Welter’s. It was socialized into women the way you are describing, usually by other women. I have written on the history of Methodist women, but more specifically the women who chose to join the then-new women’s mission societies. There was a True Methodist Woman, too (identified by Jean Miller Schmidt). As my book, *St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel,* explains, there were three ways of dealing with the demand that they exhibit domesticity, piety, and submissiveness. Women could accept it; they could totally reject it and move outside expectations of church and society; or they could work within it, or appear to work within it, all the while working subversively to expand the boundaries. The women I’ve written about chose Door #3. But this does NOT mean the socialization vanished, or that it has vanished now, or that I, having language to identify and describe it, am not still subject to the same feelings you describe on FAR too many occasions. Just know that it was not an accident that we’re all in this boat, and the more we can recognize and name it, as you’ve just done, the better. Patriarchy ain’t gonna smash itself.

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